The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

How To Learn Languages Like A Child (Yes It Is Possible)


How to learn languages like a child

Long overdue update time!

We’re expecting our second child (daughter) next week.

It really amazes me how much life can change in a few short years. Seems like only yesterday I was gallivanting around the world as a single guy with nothing else to do but learn languages all day.

Fatherhood has kept be busy (the fulfilling kind of busy!).

My 20 month-old son has made enormous leaps in his language learning over the past few weeks.

I’m sure most parents can relate:

Your child hits these remarkable stages where their language development suddenly (as if overnight) goes from ‘wow’ to ‘WOW’.

I shared at the beginning of this new parenting journey that I wanted to follow along and document my son’s first language development. It’s been an opportunity to observe and experience first-hand the things I studied and speculated on in college.

Instead of studying other people’s kids’ learning, I’ve been able to observe my own.

I’ve always rejected the idea that adults are unable imitate the process of children‘s first language development and I’ve finally had the chance to begin properly verifying that belief.

Importantly: verifying that my own adult language learning approach indeed works.

I’ve been watching my son’s language development closely.

We’ve just reached a stage where he is repeating literally everything we say to him.

This includes words and phrases he’s never heard before. He’ll try to say what he hears the first time even when his attempt is wrong.

He’s trying to learn and his skills are snowballing.

He associates utterances with objects, sensations, moods, people and places.

My son also recently started:

  • Using final consonants – e.g. ‘Nigh’ became ‘Nigh-t’.
  • Using 3 syllable words – e.g. “Octopus” is ‘ot-a-pa’
  • Using words together – “dad fo” (dad’s phone), “pe mowa” (Pete’s mower), “shyit da” (sit down), “fit it” (fix it), “hepe mama” (helping mama), “dada are u” (Dad, where are you?).
  • Comprehending larger sentences at normal speed – he’ll not only understand single word commands but also natural speed, full sentences (although it’s hard to tell if he’s understanding the entire sentence or just identifying the key words that stand out to him).

He’s learned quite a few letters of the alphabet too, associating the letters with names and objects (although this is a very different skill development).

 

Natural language learning is pure sound mimicry

At the end of the day, natural language learning is 100% mimicry of sound patterns.

We hear sounds constantly and we repeat those sounds to the best of our ability. It happens often enough (thousands and thousands of times) that it sticks.

In the case of a young child like my son or an adult learning a language with unusual sounds, you’re limited in what you repeat by the sounds you already know.

It’s all about familiar mouth mechanics.

For example, in Arabic you might hear a guttural ‘ain sound but reproduce it as a simple ‘a’ vowel because that’s the closest sound you’re capable of as an English speaker.

My son repeats everything now.

But he might repeat a word like ‘computer’ as ‘pata’ – the letter ‘c’, the consonant cluster ‘m+p’, the ‘yu’ sound are all unknowns to him for now.

But he is repeating it in his own way.

And he’s repeating what I call ‘chunks’ (a concept that I personally developed on the back of Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach).

I mentioned a few examples above – ‘fix it’, ‘sit down’, ‘dad’s phone’.

My son has acquired these expressions and many others as whole patterns – he didn’t acquire individual words and grammar to build the expressions.

This is how language is naturally acquired.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed my son start to use the possessive suffix “‘s” when talking about people’s property – “papa’s car” for example. He’s actually acquiring and learning how to use grammar without any kind of explicit education.

Just exposure + repetition.

Adults can (and I would argue should) learn the same way.

 

My ‘repeat-what-you-hear’ experiment

First of all, I’m also due for an update on Greek.

I realize it’s been a long time since I shared about it here and hopefully once the baby arrives and things calm down for us, I’ll have time to provide some detailed updates.

I’ve been experimenting over the course of my Greek study.

As well as Greek, I made a list of a few totally unknown languages to me (Thai, Hungarian and Mongolian mainly) so I could put the ‘repeat-what-you-hear’ process to the test for myself.

This is as a way of proving to myself that my method does not just apply to languages that I’m familiar with.

That even a completely foreign and unknown pattern of sounds can be mimicked.

I wanted to take a few languages with sounds that are very new to me and see how well I can listen and repeat whole chunks without studying anything.

No reading text or transcriptions either if I can help it. Just exposure and repetition of the patterns I hear.

In essence: doing what my son is doing with English.

Thai:

Greek:

These recordings show what a typical “study” session of mine looks like.

As you can see, it’s extremely repetitive and prone to mistakes in the beginning (which is why I’m always reluctant to record video demonstrating the start-to-finish process of learning a language).

Over time, these repetitive sound patterns get ingrained into your mind (this has definitely been the case with me and Greek).

Patterns become habitual.

Grammar, vocab and ‘what sounds right’ start to become natural.

 

Traditional language study and reading can actually get in the way of learning

I find that when I read text, it often gets in the way of natural acquisition.

Instead of letting your ears get attuned to the sound patterns you’re hearing and allowing the mechanics of your mouth to adjust to mimicry, you’re focusing heavily on visual representation (i.e. letters on a page). As a visual-spatial learner, it’s extra challenging.

When we speak our native language, we don’t do this.

Reading is a totally separate (and much later) skill that is totally unrelated to spoken fluency (though it does help you build vocabulary).

This is why I always emphasize that grammar study and literacy skills are learned in school years after you’ve already become totally fluent in your first language.

I don’t want to be visualizing text when I try to speak a new language – I want to be visualizing the object I’m talking about and totally attuned to the mood, intonation and flow of the sound I’m producing/hearing.

I’ll share more on my process shortly.

 

What are your thoughts?

 

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  1. Hi Donovan,
    I also have a 20-month old son, and we are doing a multilingual experiment with 3 languages (Romanian mother, Canadian father, living in Turkey). It is interesting to see him already starting to sort out all 3 in his mind, although they are not all 3 equally strong.

    While I agree largely with your post, I have one remark: the advantage that a child has over an adult is a 24/7 immersion environment with adults who are adjusting their language to suit the baby’s needs and level.

    An adult cannot possibly recreate that environment for themselves, can they? I believe in natural language learning and grammar assimilation, but in order for it to work best, does it not need literally thousands of hours of input in an intense immersion environment over several years?

    I learned Romanian largely naturally. I became conversationally fluent without ever picking up a grammar book. But eventually I had to fill in the gaps with some explicit grammar study, because I lacked that 24/7 immersion environment. I don’t know how an adult can avoid that.

    What do you think?

    Reply
    1. Hi Tim,

      Adults actually have it easier for a number of reasons:

      1) We are **intentionally** learning languages. Children are not. For kids, languages are purely a means to achieve whatever they’re doing.

      2) Adults are able to be resourceful. If I need to communicate and don’t know how to, I am able to look something up. Kids don’t have a clue what they’re lacking or how to go about looking it up.

      3) We’re able to focus and make better use of our time. As you say, a child has 24/7 exposure but much of that exposure is not necessarily effective language time. Something that you or I could pick up quickly in a short period might take a child many months of scant exposure.

      Adult native speakers also adjust speech for us as learners. It’s a natural thing to have people automatically adjust their language to suit whoever they’re speaking to. It might be ‘baby language’ but it is adjusted to something we can understand usually.

      > “does it not need literally thousands of hours of input in an intense immersion environment over several years?”

      Simple answer: yes. It takes many years and thousands of hours of input for an adult to learn a foreign language properly. No way around that.

      Reply
      1. Hi Donovan,

        Points taken, adults certainly have a number of advantages over children.

        I also do not like doing grammar study. I agree that explicit grammar exercises are not an efficient use of my time, nor very effective. However, I have found it useful to use grammar sometimes like in Krashen’s “monitor” theory. In other words, when I’m struggling with a certain structure, to look it up briefly to get the theory, then go right back to my reading/listening/speaking.

        For example, when learning Romanian, there are 24 different versions of the phrases “this one” or “these ones”, according to cases and gender. Just by listening, reading and speaking, I was able to assimilate a handful, but I still get it wrong quite often after 7 years of learning the language. My 7-year old Romanian nephew however gets them all right, all the time. What is the difference? He is in a Romanian-only 24/7 immersion environment and I’m not.

        One day I looked up that section of a grammar reference book, understood better the theory, did a few examples, etc. Within a very short time after that I was able to assimilate half a dozen more forms sucessfully. I would rather do that then spend a couple more years naturally assimilating those same forms.

        All this to say I guess that I think there is still a small use for explicit grammar study, when done wisely and in moderation. No matter how much natural language learning I do, I can’t possibly replicate my nephew’s immersion environment.

        Also, since I’m an adult, I want to read and listen to adult resources, not children’s ones. That’s where reading comes in handy. Since I’m already fluent in French, I can learn a lot of “adult” Romanian vocabulary (both have latin roots) just by mass reading. Of course, reading and listening at the same time to the same resource is the most effective I think.

        All this to say that while I agree with you 90%, as a conscious adult language learner, I feel like there’s a place for some grammar and reading. Are there not some inescapable differences between how children and adults learn?

        Respectfully,

        Tim

        Reply
  2. Looking forward to the Greek update!

    Reply
  3. Looking forward to seeing your update on Greek. I want to see what foreigners who learn my native also think!

    Reply
  4. Hi Donovan,

    Speaking of a Greek update, I am curious about how you maintain your ancient languages? In college, I studied Attic Greek and Quichua. Attic Greek was taught completely as grammar and Quichua was taught by speaking and listening. I’m sure you can guess which one I still remember years later. I am having to re-learn Ancient Greek (going with Koine this time) and am determined to incorporate more listening and speaking. How do you retain the ancient languages you have acquired? Thanks!

    Reply
  5. No adults cant learn a language like a child. Check out you tube – Rick Beato – “why you can not learn perfect pitch”.
    Also check out (google) the LSD experiments and how it affects learning sounds.

    Reply
  6. Hi Donovan,

    First of all, congratulations, and the best to you and your growing family!

    I think you are on the right track in many ways about adults being able to learn languages like children do, for example being able to pick up grammar implicitly through exposure and context.

    However, I think you’ve made the common mistake of looking at what some children do and imposing an adult conception of things on it, without looking enough at what’s happening “behind the scenes” for the child, which is very different from what adults typically do and experience.

    I think children’s mimicry of language like what you’ve observed with your son is different from the kind of “listen and repeat” that adults practice in two critical ways: 1) The child is usually doing it having had a lot of experience listening to the language already, and 2) even when they do it without this experience, they are doing it in a way that is unforced, unself-conscious, and largely unconscious of language to the degree that adults are.

    Also, the child’s repeating is probably an effect or result of language acquisition rather than a cause—it emerges as a result of a lot of input and experience.

    In these ways what you’re doing with a language like Thai is not what your son is doing with English. That’s not to say that what you’re doing can’t be effective for things like improving pronunciation in the target language, if done carefully and diligently, but I doubt whether it’s something the average language learner will or can do consistently.

    I think there’s a way that could be easier and more effective for the average person, and which would be more truly learning a language like a child. Essentially it’s about providing for adults abundant opportunities for compelling comprehensible input and experience with languages, through which they can pick up languages through listening without consciously focusing on the language itself.

    I’ve written about this in more detail on my blog at:
    https://beyondlanguagelearning.com/2019/01/14/how-young-childrens-mimicry-of-language-is-very-different-from-adult-learners-listen-and-repeat/

    Reply
  7. Yes, there are some parallels between children and adult learners. However, adults already know and inhabit a language – are shaped by a language. Furthermore, they ARE adults, so artificially acting childish would seem to be a poor long term solution for adults.

    Reply
    1. > “artificially acting childish”

      Never said ‘act childish’. If that’s what you gleaned from the points I made then you didn’t read it properly. I was referring to the way children naturally absorb and acquire whole lexical chunks without the need to question *why*. Adults are perfectly capable of learning the same way WITH the added benefit of the language and cognitive abilities they already possess.

      Reply
  8. Dear Donovan, I wasn’t clear enough in my comments, so I will elaborate for the sake of clarity. There are two issues which your article raises that I find problematic; firstly, you conflate ‘listening and repeating’ with natural language acquisition by first language acquirers. Where is the CONTEXT? Children don’t press play on a sound clip…pause…and then repeat. Their setting is a natural setting, with natural relationships, in a comprehensible environment. And when they do start repeating sentences it is after having internalised 1,000s of hours of engagement which is compelling and comprehensible – as Kris highlighted in the comments above – the speech is just as much a result of learning than a cause. In order to call ‘listen and repeat’ akin to natural acquisition one would first have to be placed in an environment where utterances have a background context. Furthermore, an adult- being adult- is conscious that playing a sound clip and repeating it is decontextualised and hence lacks authenticity…he or she cannot pretend to be ignorant of this. I think this explains, in part, why an experienced language learner like Vladimir Skutlety stated that when learning Chinese, eventually, the only thing which worked for spoken fluency was to learn a given expression in a highly specific CONTEXT – and after experiencing this authentic content his brain kind of accepted this context as genuine and he formed a lasting connection with that expression. I’m not suggesting that ‘listening and repeating’ is not valuable – it is! I’m suggesting that it is a part of a much larger picture of acquisition for a L1 child, and, moreover, it is not a ‘practice’ for a child in the way it is for an L2 adult learner. For an adult, it lacks authenticity-at some level- and hence has a demotivating artificiality to it. Even if you master a given phrase, it means nothing until you can use it in real conversation. Furthermore, natural acquisition cannot be 100% mimicry, because the mimicry in a ‘natural’ context is contingent not just on copying, but rather on engagement and communication- which may or may not be verbal.. If you simply listen and repeat, who is you audience and what is your connection to the speaker? What’s natural about that?
    Secondly, even if ’mimicry’ is the ‘best’ approach to L2 acquisition, in practice, it is useless if some adult learners find that approach demotivating or frustrating and uninspiring. After all, adult are adults. As John Pasden notes:
    “ It’s not that you can’t learn like a child, it’s that you won’t. You’re not willing to. Not because you aren’t committed, or aren’t smart enough, but because you’re an adult with a little bit of self-respect. And you get frustrated.” It is in light of these points- and many more could be added- that I meant that the approach you were arguing for could be viewed as “artificially acting childish”. Artificial, because it is so decontextualised, and frustrating because you are not a child and cannot pretend to have the same learning approach. I hope this, however imperfectly, clarifies my comment.

    Reply
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